Is it better to be a humanist than religious?

In the BBC News Magazine on 24 May 2014, an article appeared entitled A Point of View: Is it better to be religious than spiritual? It was written by Dr. Tom Shakespeare, someone who I have great respect for in relation to his work with disability rights, ethics, and social rights.

And I enjoyed his article here too. He talks about the increase in those who label themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR) but argues that they have perhaps chosen an unsound set of beliefs, concluding that a worldview labelled ‘religious but not spiritual’ would be a far better choice.

This is fine as an idea, but to make it he rejects humanism as being “not positive but negative – it centres on rejecting religion”, and makes the claim that it is religion that makes us socially responsible, offering insights into charity and justice, with humanism (and non-religious spirituality) focussing on self-obsessed individualism.

I would call myself a humanist and I do not recognise humanism as being negative, individualistic, or even centred on the rejection of religion. The British Humanist Association defines humanism with three main points, and all fly in the face of Dr. Shakespeare’s assumption.

Humanists tend not to be religious, that is true, but this is merely a result of the fact that most humanists look to the scientific method and reason to understand the world around them. As religion is largely made up of unfounded, and very often completely irrational claims about the natural world, it is no wonder that the majority of humanists reject religion.

But this is not a negative assertion. It is the by-product of a positive world view that puts trust in human ingenuity and endeavour, both of individuals and from our fellow humans as a social group.

And Humanism is not an individualistic (I can only read this as a euphemism for selfish in this context) stance. Humanists place great importance on empathy for their fellow sentient beings (not just humans, animals too). They tend to believe that we only have one life and we should therefore do our best to make it the best we can, both for ourselves (certainly) but also for those with whom we share our only planet.

At one point Dr. Shakespeare says “without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe”. Apart from the fact that we can’t help but see the world through our own eyes from within our own head, I don’t see religion making any difference to this point of view.

If we take Christianity as an example, many believers think that they are constantly and personally being watched by a god, that it is judging them as individuals all the time, that it will answer their prayers (selfish or charitable), that the Earth was created just for humans to have dominion over, and that there is a special place in Heaven for them – and this is the place, after death, that really matters. (There are probably many ‘christians’ who are actually closer to being humanist than true Christian, especially in the Church of England.)

What about a seemingly more benign religion such as Buddhism? This is very much about the self, the enlightenment of the self and the rebirth of the self – the term ‘navel gazing’ could not be more at home here. Yes, there are charitable and social aspects to Buddhism, as with all religions, but I would argue that is almost as much a by-product of the religion as non-religiousness is of humanism.

Is the humanist view of the world self-centred? Humanists tend not to believe that the world was put here just for us; we recognise that we live in a stupendously vast universe, possibly one of many, in which we are a tiny speck upon a tiny speck; that we have one life but we also have a great responsibility to our fellow humans (and other life-forms) who will come after us.

Here is another quote from Dr. Shakespeare’s article: “If you’re an atheist, I can heartily recommend involvement in religion. It offers a sense of belonging and it offers tradition, which can be reassuring and comforting. It offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves to which we should bend our personal will.”

Well, perhaps I can recommend karate? I have been attending karate clubs for almost 30 years now. It is one of the main social events of my week and is deeply mired in tradition, with the formal patterns (kata) being handed down through generations and having roots in the ancient past. It offers reassurance in the form of improved self-confidence. Karate is all about discipline – involving a high work ethic to practice the tiniest details in order to improve technique, but also to foster awareness and respect for your training partners. And it promotes social responsibility too, if that’s what is meant by ‘something outside ourselves’.

If not, then I’m a bit lost. Most atheists don’t accept that there is ‘something outside ourselves’ in any spiritual sense. Bending your ‘personal will’ to ‘something outside’ of yourself brings up several of the more distasteful aspects of religion: acting out of fear, obeying authority without question or skepticism, and sometimes doing morally questionable things for those very reasons.

Dr. Shakespeare is worried that those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ are subscribing to a pick-and-mix set of beliefs that have nothing to say about charity and justice – unlike traditional religions.

Well, where justice is concerned I would rather keep our more secular moral system than one that stems from, say, the Bible, where stoning to death, slavery, and eternal punishment and torture, among other things, are advocated as forms of justice. If you argue that there are good things in these religions and that very few people adhere to these darker pronouncements, then I’d say you’re subscribing to a pick-and-mix set of beliefs, which is a good thing, and I’m glad your secular, humanist morals are trumping the outdated laws of your deity.

As for charity – does religion make you more charitable? Well, yes, it does seem as though some studies indicate charitable donations tend to be the domain of the religious. But they also show that it is not necessarily the religious aspect that compels this giving attitude – it is more the social construct.

And, the question must be raised, when a religious person gives to charity, is it completely altruistic, or might the donation also be seen as oiling the runners on the escalator to Heaven? It doesn’t really matter – the point is that charity, whatever the motive, helps in the real world, but if you’re arguing for the superiority of religion over humanism in this area, you should tread carefully. Philanthropy is a love of humanity, and what could be more humanist than that?

If we could snap our fingers and vanish religion from the face of the Earth tomorrow, charity would not end. We humans are social creatures, and it is social ties that promote charity, not dogmatic faith.

Taking my earlier example of karate, some of the clubs I’ve been involved with put on events to raise money for charity – something a multitude of secular groups, big and small, do all the time. Personally speaking, I tend to give to charity these days at the behest of those in my own circles, whether asked at social events, or by responding to requests via online networks such as Facebook or Twitter (both of which have been used by many individuals and causes to raise vast sums for charity). Religion offers a fantastic community structure, but without religion, existing secular networks of many kinds would expand and new ones would be created to fill the gaps.

I have a couple of other minor issues with the piece. Dr. Shakespeare says that ‘nones’ (those who answer ‘none’ to religious preference on census returns) are “people who belong to no religion but still believe in God”. This is not accurate – ‘nones’ include atheists (who do not accept the idea of any gods).

I’d also take issue with his description of paganism and Scientology as being “new religious movements”. Paganism covers a wide range of religious beliefs, many of which pre-date Christianity by several centuries. Perhaps he meant Neo-paganism, but that is usually a resurrection of an older religious idea anyway. As for Scientology, I wouldn’t class that as a true religion – a label it mainly uses in order to avoid paying tax wherever possible and to claim religious discrimination at every opportunity. It’s more of a pay-as-you-go self-help course, at best.

My overall response to Dr. Shakespeare’s article, however, is that it’s not religion that makes us socially responsible, caring, empathetic creatures – it is the fact that we are human, and that is what humanism is all about. It is not religion that is good, it is people that are good.

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